ChemCam laser first analyses yield beautiful results

ChemCam laser first analyses yield beautiful results
This photo mosaic shows the scour mark, dubbed Goulburn, left by the thrusters on the sky crane that helped lower NASA's Curiosity rover to the Red Planet. It is located 16 to 20 feet (5 to 6 meters) to the left of the rover's landing position. The sky crane appears to have uncovered an outcrop of loosely consolidated rocks during the rover's landing. The mosaic consists of six images from the remote micro-imager (RMI) on the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, shown around an image from the Mast Camera for context. Each RMI image has a field of view of 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12 centimeters) across and shows details as small as 0.02 to 0.03 inches (0.5 to 0.6 millimeters). ChemCam's laser was used to analyze material at the centers of panels 2, 3 and 4. PHOTO CREDIT: NASA/JPL

Members of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover ChemCam team, including Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists, squeezed in a little extra target practice after zapping the first fist-sized rock that was placed in the laser's crosshairs last weekend.

Much to the delight of the scientific team, the laser instrument has fired nearly 500 shots so far that have produced strong, clear data about the composition of the .

"The spectrum we have received back from Curiosity is as good as anything we looked at on Earth," said Los Alamos National Laboratory Roger Wiens, Principal Investigator of the ChemCam Team. "The entire MSL team was very excited about this and we popped a little champagne."

When ChemCam fires its extremely powerful laser pulse, it briefly focuses the energy of a million light bulbs onto an area the size of a pinhead. The laser blast vaporizes a small amount of its target up to seven meters (23 feet) away. The resultant flash of glowing plasma is viewed by the system's 4.3-inch aperture telescope, which sends the light down an optical fiber to a spectrometer located in the body of the rover. There, the colors of light from the flash are recorded and then sent to Earth, enabling scientists to determine the of the vaporized material.

Scientists tested the system on Earth in a chamber that simulated the . Some of the initial spectral data from Mars look similar to some of the terrestrial standards at first glance. In the coming weeks, ChemCam researchers will pore over the data to look for tiny variations among the peaks and valleys within spectral data captured on Earth and on Mars. These comparisons will allow the team to fine tune and calibrate the instrument, ensuring that every spectral signature gathered by the rover is accurate.

Each element on the Periodic Table has a unique spectral signature. ChemCam scientists will be able to use these spectral fingerprints to decipher the composition of Martian geology, including information about whether Mars rocks ever existed in a watery environment or underwent changes due to interactions with biological organisms.

With regard to Coronation rock (the rock formerly known as N-165), ChemCam's inaugural target, "at first glance it appears consistent with a basaltic composition," Wiens said.

"What's more interesting, however, is whether the rock had dust on it or some other kind of surface coating," he said. "ChemCam saw peaks of hydrogen and magnesium during the first shots that we didn't see in subsequent firings. This could mean the rock surface was coated with dust or some other material."

With Coronation's analyses complete, the science team had a chance to pick new targets.

"After Coronation, we got to shoot at a group of ugly-looking rocks in the area named 'Goulburn,'" Wiens said. "That is one of the areas near the rover that was blasted by the thrusters of the landing vehicle, but these rocks were much farther away from the rover than Coronation, providing a bit more of a test for the ChemCam's laser."

The ChemCam system is one of 10 instruments mounted on the MSL mission's Curiosity rover—a six-wheeled mobile laboratory that will roam more than 12 miles of the planet's surface during the course of one Martian year (98 Earth weeks). The system is designed to capture as many as 14,000 observations throughout the mission.

"We are just jubilant," Wiens said. "This mission is absolutely amazing. Everything is working so well. The same applies to our instrument."

ChemCam's laser, telescope, and camera were provided by the French space agency, CNES, while the spectrometers, electronics, and software were built at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which leads the investigation. The spectrometers were developed with the aid of Ocean Optics, Incorporated, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory assisted with various aspects of development.

The Curiosity science team plans next to take the rover out for a short spin to test out other systems. As the mission progresses, researchers will study the Martian environment in the vicinity of Mount Sharp, a towering peak with a summit nearly three miles above the rover. Mount Sharp appears to contain layers of sedimentary history dating back several billion years. These layers are like pages of a book that could teach researchers much about the geological history of the planet, including whether the Martian environment ever was, or ever may be, suitable for life as we know it.

Explore further

ChemCam laser sets its sights on first Martian target

Citation: ChemCam laser first analyses yield beautiful results (2012, August 24) retrieved 22 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 24, 2012
I really wish the "enlarge" picture was large enough to actually show some detail. This is a chronic problem.

Aug 24, 2012
Here you go:


and if you want the full res tiff:


Aug 24, 2012
Million light bulbs? A new unit of measurement?
This is a modified Thales DIVA laser, and has a peak power of 1 MW. It is a pulsed 1067 nm Q-switched diode-pumped solid-state laser that delivers 40 mJ per pulse with a pulse duration of less than 10 ns at a 10 Hz maximum repetition rate.

Aug 24, 2012
I hope that when the researchers "pore over the data," they don't sweat too much... As Shakespeare might have asked, "What's in a syntax?" Poor pores pour potent power when blatant brains bleat brawny plosives...

Aug 24, 2012
To "pore over the data" is a correct usage and spelling.

Aug 24, 2012
_etabeta_: Exactly, it got me worried. I'm used to standard units such as FS (football stadiums) or WoH (widths of hair).

Aug 24, 2012
@ahave - i'm not sure what pidgin dialect you favour - "pore" is a noun, not a verb, and is an ventilative/excretory opening in skin or the surface of a leaf. The verb is "to pour / pouring." But then English as she is spoke... To each his own. I'm a purist at heart and author of three published works (written six) so believe I have some right to judge syntagm and syntax.

Aug 24, 2012
@neurons - well, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary appears to be an American English dictionary and the case appears to become clearer - this must be allocable to a difference between American and British English. I still prefer to differentiate what I see as typifying the noun-sense and verb-sense of the variants. As I said: to each his own. No malice intended.

Aug 24, 2012
The upshot is that the laser shot showed some non-volatile carbon, apparently not adsorbed CO2 but mineral, another supply for any critters. Of course carbon, and even abiotically produced organics, have already been found in shergottites. Still a good confirmation.

No ratios given yet, but I assume they would be in "smidgens" or "your mommas IQ".

Aug 24, 2012
I would not complain too much about the units used in this matter. Human hairs are much more precise units than the ones used for other areas. CO2 emissions are typically measured in ToT ("thousands of trees"), not to talk about neutron stars that are measured in MCS ("mass of cities per spoon")

Aug 24, 2012
How can we tell what crystals there may be in the rock with no colour =/

Aug 25, 2012
One likes Photon per Fortnight (~femtolux range) for irradiance levels. Beats nanoJoules!

Aug 25, 2012
@doug - right: from "pouren," not "poren" hmm...
Pore: late 14c., from L. porus "a pore," from Gk. poros "a pore," lit. "passage, way," from PIE *por- "going, passage," from root *per- "to lead, pass over." As I said, to each his own - I prefer to differentiate

Aug 25, 2012
its definately not pore mans science

Aug 25, 2012
Tachyon can't seem to understand that "pore" in the sense he is using is strictly a medical term.


Your extreme backpedaling just to not be wrong is a fundamental problem with humanity. You would think, as a semi intelligent person, that you would just turn around and run.

The fact that a person with such a tentative grasp on the English language has been published really exposes how easy it is to be printed or how easy it is to lie online.

Aug 26, 2012
According to Wiktionary, "Pour" is probably from the Celtic root "*purr-" (to jerk, to throw water). "Pore" as a noun is from Greek "πόρος" (a passage/portal; from "to pierce"). "Pore" as verb is from Old English "*purian", suggested by spyrian ("to examine"). The latter also seems evocative of "peer" and "pry" (peer in), but I'm no expert. Finally, "poor" is from Anglo-Norman "povre"/"poure" (V->U), from Old Latin "*pavo-pars" (getting little). That's actually cognate with Old English "fēawa" (little, few). I think that's after applying sound shifts (P->F) and (V->W). Modern English is a hodgepodge of words from Germanic, Celtic, Latin, and Greek bases (plus more borrowed from cultures around the world). Sometimes that leads to a train wreck such as pour/pore/poor. That said, "researchers will POUR over the data" is a fun image.

Aug 27, 2012
I would not complain too much about the units used in this matter. Human hairs are much more precise units than the ones used for other areas.

What hairs ae being spoken of? The hair of my nether regions are much thicker than the hair on my head.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more